I spent the last of my savings on flinging myself into South America’s wilderness. The world was ending anyway. I thought that I should see it before it was gone. She told me that the country would still be a pretty place without her.
I pinched the brim of my baseball cap and looked up the stairway to the temple’s altar. It was hard to believe that I stood in front of one of the buildings photographed in her books. The pictures made them look indestructible, like the stone blocks that formed the stair-step sides of the pyramids were caulked with magic. Nothing should have been able to destroy those.
The temple crumbled under the crimson glow of the sun. Its majesty had melted away. Vines reached up the rock in desperation, like browning, parched fingers. Even the jungle plants couldn’t survive much longer in that heat.
The wild trees leaned close to the shrine; the ferns brushed their scorched leaves against my back. Sweat rolled down my bare chest as I stepped out of the undergrowth and climbed the temple side. The thump of my footfalls marked my ascent like a drumbeat and my heart joined it in a fierce harmony.
I wanted to know why the legends and culture of the Aztecs made her smile so wide. My mind screamed that coming here was a fool’s errand, but my heart ballooned with anticipation.
What if those myths were real?
When I reached the top I grabbed the pillar to my right. My fingers clutched the stone nose of an animal face, mouth agape as though it gasped for air.
Our sun, swelling billions of years too early into a red giant, stretched across the deathbed of a sky. A few more weeks and it would reach us, engulf the world, burn away all life.
And basked in the harsh, bloody glow of the hell smeared above, waiting for that end, was a god. I tightened my grip on the pillar as a curse fell past my lips.
The emerald snake gazed at me from the altar, scales battered and body coiled. His wings were what assured me that he was divine. They hung off the sides of the platform like ancient tapestries. I could tell his plumage was bright and colorful once.
The Feathered Serpent. His legends were her favorite. The memories guided me forward; they silenced my panicked mind, suffocated me with awe. If only she could have seen him.
The clunk of my boots was lost to the dry air, faded into the dying canopy below us.
His mouth cracked open and he spoke in a language I didn’t understand, complex and twisted. I said nothing, he paused, and then continued in a soft, patient voice. The structure of his words rearranged until I could make out, “My people are gone.”
“Your…people?” I coughed. My throat was parched from the climb, but I couldn’t bring myself to pull the canteen out of my pack. I was stricken by either wonder or insanity.
“Yes. I have returned, but they did not wait for me.” His tone was solemn. “Who are you?”
I stopped in front of the altar and placed down my quaking hands. The little god raised his head and tried to fold back his wings; the feathers jerked about in a pathetic flutter and lay limp again.
“A traveler,” I said. I squinted at him through the blazing light. “I’ve come to pay this place respect in the memory of my daughter.”
His eyes were black, unblinking, and held the same quiet ferocity as the approaching sun.
“Family is precious,” the god said, “especially when the end nears.” His tongue shot out of his maw, quick as lightning, and slipped back inside.
I nodded. Precious enough to drive me across the world, I thought. The grief burned in my chest, more agonizing than even the ethereal heat.
“I had exiled myself after shaming my family,” he said.
He slithered to my hand and started up my arm. I flinched when I felt his chilled scales but his hiss eased my eyes shut. It felt like my daughter’s cold, frail hands squeezed me. His broken wings were as soft as her hair.
“No one remembers me.”
When I opened my eyes, his head hovered by my shoulder. “I cannot take care of this sun any longer,” he said. “My people gave me the blood and power I needed.”
Human sacrifice. She giggled at that. My girl never could fathom death, even as it gripped her.
“I have held on for so long. Soon, no one will remember anything.” His neck curved and he stared at the sky.
“I don’t want that to happen,” I said.
“Nor do I, but I do not have the strength to prevent it.”
I thought of my daughter spinning in the lush backyard, skirt twirling, a book hugged to her chest.
And her endless smile.
Life would burn away, and so would each and every memory.
“I can help you.”
The world needed to be saved. I didn’t care about the people left on it; they’d turned into monsters the moment they knew we were doomed. Sacrifices must be made, they said. They slaughtered one another like it was nothing, scrambled to gather weapons, supplies, and claim areas they thought would be safe.
They took her from me. The god’s dull chill sank inside my bones.
“There is very little time,” he said.
“I know. It won’t be hard to get what you need.”
There was enough blood being shed those days.
© Michelle Cachey
Michelle Cachey is studying fiction at Columbia College Chicago. She’s very happy to share this story with you and hopes to have more work out there soon.